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Parker Field by Howard Owen

July 3, 2014 2 comments

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Dropping for a moment into the American vernacular, realtors claim the key to a sale is location to the power of three. In a sense, the same formula applies to authors when it comes to the setting of their novels. There must be a credible physical place in which the action is to occur. The culture of the place at that specific moment in time must resonate with the readers. We must feel we’ve known places like this and, more importantly, the setting must help to set the mood for the action. And the people who live and work there, both individually and collectively, must step off the pages as living and breathing members of the community. In Parker Field by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2014) we find all three realtor qualifications met as our series character, Willie Black, continues to scrape a living as a journalist in Oregon Hill, one of the neighbourhoods in Richmond, Virginia. For those of you who like a little history, the stadium named Parker Field was built in 1934 as a general place for community and sporting activities, and converted to minor league baseball in 1954. It has now been demolished.

Those of you who know me might crack a smile that I should suddenly have developed some knowledge, albeit paltry, of the American obsession with baseball. I confess sport, no matter which country and its local preferences, has always left me cold. After a long lifetime, I can put my hand on my heart and say I have only twice paid to see a professional game played. That has not stopped me from being a moderately competent player of two sports. I’ve just never been interested in following how well or badly other people perform. As the title of this book might suggest, the theme for this investigation is that there seems to be an unusually high death rate among the 1964 team which called itself the Richmond Vees. This is an entirely fictitious team that plays in Parker Field during the fallow year between the departure of the Virginians and the arrival of the Braves. The reason for establishing this somewhat arcane fact is that someone takes a shot at Les Hacker who was a member of the team. Willie is directly involved because Les is living with his mother and has become a kind of surrogate father.

Howard Owen

Howard Owen

Although the probable motive for the killing emerges quite early on, it’s impossible to see who would have the inclination to act after so long a period of time. There’s also a serious logistical problem for the possible killer to have found all these people and then patiently waited between the deaths so a pattern to the deaths would not be obvious. We therefore settle in for the long haul as our doughty journalist cum detective tracks down everyone who was on the team or their surviving relatives. Once he begins talking to them, a strong indication emerges he’s on the track of a serial killer but, of course, the local police are unimpressed. They have arrested the local homeless vet who made the mistake of wearing the jacket so conveniently dumped on him while he was “resting” in the park. Such is the bullheaded stupidity required of local law enforcement who prefer the obvious solution to the right answer. In the end, Willie solves the problem and ends up no better than he was at the beginning of the book except he’s now without Les.

Taken overall, Parker Field is a particularly fine example of how to make the setting a character in the book. Everything that happens grows organically out of the place and the people who live there. There’s just one thing preventing this from being an outstanding book. Up to this point in the serial killing, the killer has been meticulous and patient. But the later scenes reveal him/her as almost completely unbalanced and not a little reckless. This means the ending is unnecessarily melodramatic. So if you’re prepared to go with the flow and see Willie Black call down destruction on his own head, you will feel satisfied with the outcome. Otherwise, you will think there could have been many better ways for the realism of the set-up to have been continued to the last page.

For a review of the second in the series, see The Philadelphia Quarry.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen

The Philadelphia Quarry

The Philadelphia Quarry by Howard Owen (Permanent Press, 2013) is the second to feature Willie Black, one of these journalists who just won’t take no for an answer. If his editor or the publisher tells him to “back off”, he stubbornly runs towards it, no matter what the danger. This is not, you understand, the result of natural perversity. This is the mentality of the stereotypical “news hound”, the reporter who never lets go once he gets his teeth into a story. In an earlier life, he was probably Tintin. In this reincarnation, he’s a three-times married alcoholic who leads a charmed life working for a newspaper that’s more interested in pleasing their wealthy socialite owners than the pursuit of truth and justice. For what it’s worth, I also note the coincidence of this being the second book in as many months in which a man is passing. For those of you not up on the intricacies of racism in America, the “passing” refers to an African American who’s sufficiently pale in skin colour to be able to pass as white. In defence of the somewhat ironically named Mr Black, he does not find out about his ancestry until after this book has started and, having digested the information, is not embarrassed to disclose his relationship to a very clearly African American with an interesting past, a man called Richard Slade.

Howard Owen

Howard Owen

When Willie Black was just starting out as a reporter some twenty-eight years earlier, the big local case was the rape of Alicia Parker Simpson who was an innocent young thing of sixteen summers. The man accused and convicted was Richard Slade. He serves twenty-seven years before DNA testing shows him not to be the guilty man who left his seed at the scene. Some five days after his release, Alicia is shot dead in her car. Naturally everyone in officialdom lines up to accuse Slade of taking revenge for spending all those years in jail. Except none of this may be as straightforward as the police and prosecutors would like to think. Included in the undecided camp is our hero and one of his ex-wives who’s assisting in running the defence. Normally his involvement in the investigation would not be a problem, but the newspaper has been writing inflammatory editorials and has the family and many in the local community hostile to the press. Mr Black therefore finds it difficult to get anyone to talk with him until his mother mentions his link to the family. That breaks the ice and gives our hero an opportunity to talk with both the accused and his mother. Things take off from there.

There are several good things about this book. The first is the quality of the prose. Howard Owen has a natural flow to his writing which makes it a pleasure to read. There’s also considerable credibility in the characters we meet en route to the solution of both the original rape and the new murder. While making allowances for some stock characters out of central casting, some individuals are pleasingly different from the norm and add an extra layer of interest to the book. Unfortunately, this interest does not stick so tenaciously to the primary character. Alcoholic reporters from the old school of investigative journalism are difficult to do well. His hippy mother who still spaces out on cannabis feels reasonable but his ex-wife and daughter don’t quite fit. Sadly, the character that is WIllie Black feels a little “convenient”, fitting into the needs of the plot rather than engaging in events to shape outcomes. Although he does scare up some information by his own efforts, the key to really understanding what’s going on comes when one of the Simpson family breaks ranks and starts to feed him information. Without that lucky break, he would never get anywhere near the solution and would end up fired from his job and probably in jail for dangerous driving while drunk.

Although there are some nice moments in the plot and the writing itself is a joy to read, The Philadelphia Quarry ends up less than exciting. It’s a brave effort but, given the first in the series was nominated for the Hammett Prize, somewhat of a disappointment.

For a review of the sequel, see Parker Field.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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